Tobacco is the leading cause of death in Georgia. It kills more than 11,500 people a year. No one is immune from the effects of tobacco use and secondhand smoke—tobacco kills men, women, children and babies. Exposure to tobacco products causes cancer, diabetes, heart disease and stroke, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Pregnant women, babies, and children are especially vulnerable to the dangers of tobacco.
Last week, Brenda Fitzgerald, M.D., commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) shared that message with countless people in Georgia and beyond. For the first time ever, DPH and Commissioner Fitzgerald participated in a satellite media tour. Media from all over Georgia were invited to speak to Dr. Fitzgerald during ten minute satellite windows assigned to them individually, to ask questions about the risks of smoking for pregnant women.
“There is nothing good about smoking ever,” said Fitzgerald. “But smoking while pregnant or second hand smoke after that baby is born is equivalent to putting a pillow over the baby’s face and smothering the child.”
Nicotine, one of the addictive chemicals in tobacco products, has significant and immediate health effects. It constricts the blood vessels, which in pregnant woman can cause reduced blood flow to the placenta and baby, and lead to low birth weight and early delivery. Nicotine also increases the heart rate of both mother and baby, which is a dangerous for an unborn baby. And, nicotine causes the release insulin and challenges the pancreas, and contributes to diabetes. Diabetes in pregnant women, called gestational diabetes, contributes to lifetime obesity in babies and can causes a number of other health effects if not controlled. And, babies with a parent who smokes are more likely than babies from non-smoking homes to have ear infections, upper respiratory infections, and asthma, among other conditions. Tobacco products also contain other chemicals that are dangerous to all people, but especially pregnant women and babies.
Nearly one in five adults in Georgia smoke, and women are no exception. Approximately 18 percent, or 670,000 of Georgia women smoke, and some of those women continue smoking during part of all of their pregnancies. Smoking contributes to pre-term births. While Georgia is making progress, until recently it had one of the highest rates of early births nationwide.
And, in Georgia, we still lose a baby every other day from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Along with sleep accidents, tobacco exposure is one of the leading causes of SIDS.
“Even one premature birth or death of a baby from tobacco-related causes is unacceptable. We can do more as a state to prevent the exposure of pregnant women and infants from tobacco,” says Dr. Jean O’Connor, who oversees the Department of Public Health’s chronic disease and cancer prevention programs.
And, electronic nicotine delivery systems, like e-cigarettes and e-hookahs, are not safe alternatives to tobacco products, especially for pregnant women. These products have been shown to contain many of the same chemicals as cigarettes, and because these products are not yet regulated, their exact doses of nicotine and the dangers of the emissions they give off are unknown.
“Children should never be left alone with e-cigarettes or similar products,” Fitzgerald said. “They come in flavors and colors attractive to toddlers, and have been reported as a growing cause of poisonings and burns to children in Georgia.”
Quitting tobacco or nicotine products is not easy, but it is possible. About half of the pregnant women in Georgia who smoke quit successfully. The Georgia Tobacco Quitline number is 877-270-STOP and is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in English and Spanish, as well as other languages, and for the hard of hearing. The Quitline offers evidence-based counseling and support to help women and their families quit all forms of tobacco.